Faculty Essay: What is social justice?

Susan Torres-Harding

Susan Torres-Harding is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology. Her research interests include understanding the impact of sociocultural factors on physical and psychological health and assessing the development of social justice attitudes and social activism. She earned her PhD in Clinical Child Psychology from DePaul University in 2001.

Social justice has always been an important value to me and a foundation for my career aspirations. Therefore, in 2006, I was pleased to join the faculty at Roosevelt University, a university founded on inclusivity and one with a strong focus on social justice and social action. I quickly realized that this was a friendly “home” where I could continue to discuss the impact of societal inequalities and discrimination in health care, my own area of research.

At the same time, I was intrigued by the reactions of friends and colleagues when I told them that I was now at Roosevelt. Invariably, I would meet people who had been at Roosevelt in those early years, and they would tell me stories about what a special place Roosevelt is. They described Roosevelt as a school where people of all races came together—a college unlike others. The pictures hanging on the walls of the Auditorium Building from those early years are visual reminders of this truly unique integration of people from diverse racial groups at a time when racial segregation was the norm. Today Roosevelt continues to be ethnically and racially diverse, but the world has changed since Roosevelt came into being in 1945. In addition to racial injustice, which regrettably remains prevalent in our society, we now truly confront other forms of discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, social class and disability status.

As a Roosevelt psychology professor, I often talked in my classes about social justice as a key value for the Roosevelt community, but I found students grappled with the meaning of social justice. What is social justice? Whom is it for? Many students talked about social justice as if it were a high-minded ideal, unrealistic or impractical to do in real life. While we often discussed the need to use our knowledge and skills to work for a more fair and just society, I wondered if students had become overwhelmed with the amount of injustice in society and whether they believed they could actually make a difference in the world.

This led me to ask myself, what do students think social justice is all about? More importantly, I wanted to know what I could do to empower them to take action and strive to make a difference while at Roosevelt and after.

Social Justice Infographic? Illustration

In response to these questions, I started a series of studies to investigate how students understood social justice and how, if at all, they were learning about our social justice message and integrating it into their own lives. What did all of this talk of social justice mean to the students? And, how could we, as educators, facilitate the goals of students who had the sincere desire to promote social justice, but who also had the notion that it was too hard, impractical, unrealistic or idealistic? As an educator, I had a personal stake in these questions. I wanted to know if integrating social justice concerns into my classes was actually making a difference in how students viewed themselves, their communities, and their own personal and professional actions. In other words, were we living up to the Roosevelt University mission of educating “socially conscious citizens”? Does talking about social justice make a difference, or is it all a lot of feel-good talk that is disconnected from reality?

Students Define Social Justice

To begin answering some of these questions, my research team and I embarked on a study to first understand how students defined social justice. In textbooks, researchers and educators define social justice as “involving the recognition of the existence of social injustices based upon being a member of a non-dominant or marginalized social group.” These marginalized social groups can include people who live in poverty, women, people who are LGBTQ, people who are disabled, people from racial and cultural minority groups, and people who have severe mental illness or have a substance abuse disorder. Researchers also defined social justice as “a value or desire to increase access of power, privileges and socioeconomic resources to people from socially marginalized groups.”

But is this how students thought about social justice? I believed it unlikely that most students would think about social justice in such abstract terms. So we conducted a study with Roosevelt students simply asking how they defined social justice. We found that students were relatively consistent in their definitions. They tended to describe social justice as addressing injustices in equality and promoting opportunity, rights, fairness and acceptance of everyone, including people from diverse backgrounds. Interestingly, a significant proportion (44 percent) of the students said they engaged in some activity that promoted social justice.

Additionally, we asked students to describe what they were actually doing to promote social justice. In most academic papers, social activism is defined as political activism: marching in protests, attending rallies, writing legislators or voting in order to promote policy or legal changes.

They tended to describe social justice as addressing injustices in equality and promoting opportunity, rights, fairness and acceptance of everyone, including people from diverse backgrounds.

Interestingly, there was a tremendous range of responses to our question. In addition to political activism, we identified many different categories of social justice activities, including conducting social-justice-related research, being a member of or volunteering for an organization that focused on social activism, seeking out educational opportunities to learn more about social justice, engaging in advocacy on behalf of people from disadvantaged or marginalized groups, and talking to family and friends about social justice.

What was most impressive to me was the creativity displayed by students as they sought to promote social justice, as well as the diversity of issues addressed by their actions. Many students reported participating in marches, protests and other direct social actions for economic or racial change. One participant was working to promote social justice by acting in a short film that aimed to foster acceptance of LGBTQ youth during the coming out process. Some students were using a social justice approach when providing clinical services to children with developmental disabilities. A few reported that they were engaged in youth mentoring or were working on behalf of youth within the juvenile justice system. Others were working to promote racial justice, women’s empowerment and awareness around diversity-related justice. Still others described being LGBTQ allies or serving as advocates for women who have endured domestic and sexual violence. We also had students who volunteered at community or religious organizations to help individuals around issues of poverty and food security.

A significant number of students indicated that they spoke with family or friends about these issues. I think that these kinds of actions are more quiet forms of activism. Discussing issues of social justice with significant others might have the impact of changing attitudes or gaining support from them. In turn, this might ultimately increase awareness of social issues and might influence others to take action in some way in their own lives.

Many of the students’ efforts involved using resources available at Roosevelt University. These included engaging in social-justice related research, attending lectures, being part of student groups and organizations that promoted social justice such as RU PROUD (a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and ally organization) and Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, engaging in social justice as part of their professional clinical training and volunteering as part of service learning. Although less than half of the students we surveyed reported engaging in activism, those who were active appeared to take advantage of the resources and opportunities available at Roosevelt, and many sought to integrate these experiences with their academic studies.

social justice infographic

Connecting With The Mission

The second study that my research team and I conducted focused on the role of the University mission in promoting positive attitudes toward social justice. I wanted to understand whether students who felt more involved at the University and agreed with its mission were in fact more likely to engage in social activism. Interestingly, I found that students who reported having a high sense of community—that is, feeling as if they belonged to the “Roosevelt family”—said they valued the social justice mission more.

Students who respected the social justice mission were much more likely to state that they intended to work for social justice in the future and felt that they possessed the skills to effect positive change. These students were also more likely to report having engaged in social activism, talk about social justice issues with family and friends and personally identify as social activists. It seems that Roosevelt’s social justice mission influenced students by impacting both positive attitudes toward social justice and facilitating the integration of social justice concerns into their personal and professional lives. Feeling a part of the Roosevelt community mattered because it allowed them to share in this core community value.

Balance Illustration

Thus, the mission and values of Roosevelt University are having an impact on our students’ actions. We are currently conducting additional studies where we hope to follow undergraduate students over time to see how their ideas and views of social justice might change as they move from freshman to senior year. We are also interviewing student activists to learn from their unique experiences, motivations and perceptions of their own work.

Indeed, it has been a pleasure to be able to assess and document the amazingly diverse and creative activism that is going on at Roosevelt. In addition to the examples listed above, Roosevelt students have participated in walk-outs and rallies in Grant Park, lobbied at the state capital, made videos to help educate others about traditionally marginalized groups, conducted interventions to promote health and wellness in our communities, and organized programs that give our students and people in the community a voice. We have so much to learn from our students!

An important part of social justice education is to trust that students are able to evaluate the information we provide and use it in a way that is valid, realistic and relevant to their own lives. Because students are able to come up with so many unique and creative ways to address injustices in their interpersonal and professional lives, professors should not provide answers, but rather should pose questions to help students recognize the real challenges in our society. We can encourage them to critically evaluate their own views and the views of others and provide them with a range of interventions and interpersonal skills that they can then use to confront a range of social problems and issues in their own ways. We also need to recognize that this is hard, risky work.

An important part of social justice education is to trust that students are able to evaluate the information we provide and use it in a way that is valid, realistic and relevant to their own lives.

Working for social justice is, by its nature, “radical” because it focuses on changing the status quo, challenging existing policies and can involve breaking rules. As educators, it is important that we not only talk about social justice but provide students with the skills they need to take action and be effective. Promoting favorable attitudes and teaching interpersonal intervention and activism skills will have a positive impact on students and help them fulfill the Roosevelt mission of creating “socially conscious citizens” who change the world.

Contact Susan Torres-Harding at storresharding@roosevelt.edu



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